Atlanta's 'Dinner Bell' Rings Again

Jun 2, 2016

Before Nashville became the world’s country music capitol, a 1920s Atlanta radio program popularized the music beyond the Southeastern United States. Sears & Roebuck broadcast “Dinnerbell R.F.D.” from 1926 to 1928 out of the tower of its massive Atlanta distribution center, today’s Ponce City Market. This weekend, a group of Atlanta musicians and chefs will present a modern interpretation of the live fiddle music show.

Champion fiddle player John Carson.
Credit Wayne W. Daniel Collection / Georgia State University Library

“[Sears] used the radio show as a way to reach out to these people and the rural areas of the region, the housewives, the farmers themselves,” said historian Jerry Hancock, who’s writing a book about the Sears building’s history. “Dinner time was essential to these people's way of life. If you've been in a field all day, busting your back, sweating, you come home you get some good food and you hear some good music.” In the 1920's, "dinner" referred to the midday meal that today we call lunch. 

Broadcasting every Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m., Sears leased airtime on WSB Radio, which had gone on air in Atlanta only five years earlier. Local musicians such as Fiddlin’ John Carson, Gid Tanner and His Skillet Lickers and the Wompus Cats would play while harmonicist Dewey Burnett acted as host, actually ringing a dinner bell at the start of each program.

WSB Radio log, left. Gid Tanner of the Skillet Lickers, right.
Credit Wayne W. Daniel Collection / Georgia State University Library

While Sears executives in Chicago turned up their noses to this regional music of “hillbillies,” Southern farmers felt the radio show was speaking their language.

“It caught on very quickly,” said Hancock. “Eventually, Sears took it to a national market as they syndicated a show called the ‘National Barn Dance’ that they broadcast from Chicago. In a couple of cases, they actually took some of the local musicians to Chicago to be part of that broadcast.”

WSB studio in the Atlanta Biltmore Hotel, left. WSB control room at the Atlanta Biltmore Hotel.
Credit Georgia State University Library

In addition to enjoying the music, thousands of listeners become members of the “Dinnerbell R.F.D.,” or Radio Farmer’s Democracy, by mailing in farming or homemaking advice or questions.

“Home remedies, farming advice, advice to farm wives, ways to diversify their income,” said Hancock.

A few years later, Sears extended the idea of a farmers’ democracy by opening a farmers’ market on the building property. Hancock says this too was central to Sears’ mission of educating and marketing to farming families.

“It was sort of an open invite to bring their wares into town and find new ways to generate profit for the farm beyond just that dependence for cotton,” said Hancock.  

WSB programming head Lambdin Key at microphone, left. Radio antenna on a house in Atlanta
Credit Georgia State University Library

Sears took the program off the air in 1928 and sent its programmers to other cities to replicate the idea for new markets. Hancock says in those two years, "Dinnerbell R.F.D." planted the seeds of what would become an international phenomenon of American country music.

“Long before it was called ‘country’ music and Nashville became the center of the country music realm, it think Atlanta played a part of the earliest days of establishing a sound that was a product of the region and the people of the region.”

This weekend’s "Dinner Bell" music and food event will take place at Venkman’s in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward. Atlanta musicians Ben Holst and Quiet Hounds along with Executive Chef Nick Melvin and Daniel Chance will partner in providing music and food for 100 guests Sunday evening at 7 p.m.